CHICAGO—On the sport’s biggest stage outside of March Madness, Michigan State freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. stepped up in a big way.
Tuesday’s Champions Classic was the setting for four of college basketball’s most historic programs. But even moreso, it was a hotbed for basketball talent, with an abundance of future pros lining up for the four teams involved.
The Spartans’ front line contributed to that abundance. Pro scouts salivate over the thought of projected lottery picks Jackson and Miles Bridges playing 82 games a year.
Going into the matchup with No. 1 Duke, most expected Bridges to show out in front of a national audience. But it was Jackson who led the early charge for the Spartans, announcing himself as a player to watch all season, even though he may not even be the best player on his own team.
Jackson led off the game with an incredible first 15 minutes. He scored 10 points in that time on 4-of-4 shooting, while also collecting five rebounds. He hit two three-pointers in a row to bring the Spartans back from what became a 10-point deficit.
“I don’t think they really played my three-pointer, obviously,” Jackson said after the game.
He made countless big hustle plays to give the Spartans a chance against the Blue Devils, powering that late-first half 9-0 run after Duke opened it up into a double-digit game.
“Just little things like that where I thought I could be effective,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s only weakness was his four turnovers on the day. He played solid defensively against another tall team in Duke and contributed three blocks to the Spartans’ eye-popping 12 blocks.
“He’s a special talent,” Spartan guard Cassius Winston said. “We’re blessed to have him here. To have that type of frame, to have that type of game, you don’t find that every day. To play as hard as he does, that’s crazy. He’s a good player.”
All in all, Jackson tied Bridges and Nick Ward with a team-high 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting. However, those points were not enough to slow down Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen, who scored 37 to lead them to an 88-81 victory.
“We shot ourselves in the foot a couple times,” Jackson said. “We hurt ourselves. Most of the mistakes we made were self-inflicted, and we just gotta move on.”
For a freshman playing in front of the entire college basketball world, playing against maybe the greatest coach in the sport’s history, Jackson showed maturity and poise. Those traits will take him far in a professional career someday. But his days as a Spartan are just getting started, and that should frighten Michigan State’s opponents this season.
“The great thing about him is he wants to learn,” Bridges said. “He wants to get better every day. It showed today. The scary thing is he’s going to get better, every single game.”